Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Persimmons, various

I'm a zealous persimmon advocate, and am surprised when people see a precariously stacked pyramid in my fruitbowl and ask me what I do with them. As with many weird fruits, I want to respond, "Uh, I eat them–they're delicious as is."

The most common variety (sold at most farmers' markets, at Whole Foods, and in Chinatown) are Fuyu persimmons (above). They're a little squat, resemble shiny mini-pumpkins, and are slightly crisp, like a ripening nectarine. These are also the fruit's safest incarnation: they don't need to be cooked, or even peeled, before eating, and they're sweet as honey.

Hachiya persimmons (pictured at left) are stranger. They're more torpedo-shaped, and if you take a bite before they're fully ripe and pulpy, you'll probably fling the fruit from your hand in disgust–squinting your eyes and scraping your tongue in an attempt to rid your mouth of unimaginable bitterness. That would be the astringent quality most people fear, and the reason (it's silly, really, now that the whole internet thing's caught on) why some eaters avoid persimmons altogether. Hachiyas are ambrosial and decadent when they've reached a state of squishiness that borders on decay. You can eat them with a spoon, or use them for baking.

The other varietal I'm familiar with (and extremely partial to) is a version alien to most people: the Amagaki.

I've been buying them from Twin Peaks Orchard at the Sonoma Valley farmers' market for the past 4 years, and can't find them anywhere else. The seller, Ed, who appeared for a brief window of time at the Crocker Galleria market, says the Japanese restaurants in the city fight for his product, and promises he'll deliver to my doorstep. I'll keep you posted. Anyway, the orchard claims that the Amagaki is actually a Hachiya that (through "an ancient process developed in the Orient") has had the "puckery characteristic" bred out of it. The result is a mouthwatering hybrid of the above varieties: an elongated, acornesque shape; soft and juicy, peachlike (not pulpy) flesh that's edible as soon as you buy it; and a deep, honeyed flavor with a hint of cinnamon. I swear. Try one.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving weekend!

When you're cooking for 30 relatives, half of them (my mom and her siblings) raised on corned beef hash and waffles and ice cream, and the other half (my cousins under the age of 14) on Gushers, cranberry juice cocktail and turqouise-flecked Doritos, all weird vegetables must be camouflaged.

For the salad in the photo, I sliced Amagaki persimmons into unidentifiable wedges and had my sister Megan crumble Humboldt Fog goat cheese beyond recognition, then throw in some toasted pecans. Other dishes included a gratin of parsnips, turnips and rutabagas with Vella Asiago cheese–produced in the town of Sonoma, where our dinner took place–and brussels sprouts with pancetta. Everyone ate the root vegetables (most people thought they were potatoes), and the bits of pancetta upped the appeal of the roasted sprouts.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Three Foodies in San Francisco

So I never followed up on my post anticipating Alice Waters & co. at the City Arts & Lectures talk on "The Art of Simple Food" (the title is from Waters's newest cookbook). Ruth Reichl moderated a discussion with Waters and Calvin Trillin. Reichl used to be a food writer for the L.A. Times and then N.Y. Times and is current editor of Gourmet magazine, and Trillin is an essayist and humorist who writes about food and life for the New Yorker and the NYT and contributes ironic poetry to The Nation.

The event was sold-out, of course, but like true believers, we persevered and waited in the standby line until some seats opened up. In the end, I never really learned the Art of Simple Food, but it was fun to see the three hang out on that stage at Herbst theater with the Persian rug, comfy easy chairs, and some pomegranates stacked in a bowl on a side table.

Trillin was by far the most charming of the three. I wish I had a grandpa like him. He kept cracking jokes and told a funny story about making his young daughter try some strange food and her responding, "Well, it's better than a carrot." It became a permanent saying in the family so that they'd all come out of a movie and go, "Well, it was better than a carrot." His approach to food is just to try everything, especially if it's from a street vendor. Someone from the audience asked how his philosophy fit in with Waters's, and he said that Waters was right but that he was hungry. Waters predictably toed the party line and talked about making a bigger effort to care about and know what was in our food. But she also later said that she always packs her own food or gets "takeout" from Chez Panisse, making her totally impossible as a role model for the rest of humanity. The way I see it, we should try our best to get food that is grown or raised sustainably, organically, and locally, but that doesn't mean we should always shun In 'N' Out or dim sum. Everyone seemed to agree that dim sum was awesome, though, even Alice.

As much as I love Alice Waters and feel that the world is a much better place for her visionary approach to food, I find her a little aggravating at times. She's a little too caught up in her own rapture about the raw beauty of tomatoes or pears. Her expression in that picture at the top just about sums it up. It's like watching someone else gush over the poetry they're reading aloud to you; the whole performance is a little embarrassing, and you get the sense that it's only partly real feeling. She also claimed not to have any clue what buffalo wings were, which I find either incredibly disingenuous or an egregious lack of cultural awareness for someone who makes it their business to know about food.

I asked Alice a question about what goes through her head when she looks into other people's refrigerators, which is uncharacteristically brave of me. Her answer was kind of boring and diplomatic, but Trillin piped in that he always padlocks his fridge when she comes over and told an anecdote about his late wife freaking out over a picture that was published somewhere because it showed him standing in front of his open fridge with four cans of Ready-Whip in full view. Yum.

I don't have much to say about Ruth Reichl except that Erin likes her books and that she seemed to be playing the role of New Yorker. She was dressed in head-to-toe black and made a disparaging joke about the Midwest. The three ate at the Hayes St. Grill beforehand, if you were wondering.

If you want to catch Alice for free and be inspired/chastised, then head over to Red Hill Books in S.F.'s Bernal Heights neighborhood on Dec. 20 at 7:30pm. I used to work at their sister store, Phoenix, and the owner, Kate is amazing and happens to have a very close connection at Chez Panisse... Go buy books at Red Hill, Dog Eared in the Mission, and Phoenix in Noe Valley! Now!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fennel: creature of the night

I'm having a strange bout of insomnia tonight. Perhaps the combined result of a strong coffee at 3pm and reading too much Sylvia Plath. I thought a post about fennel would be appropriate, since this eerie vegetable strikes me as an inhabitant of the night. It has something to do with its wavy limbs that end in countless wiggly tentacles waiting to grab your ankles in the dark. It's probably safest to keep your fennel in the crisper. If you leave it out on your kitchen counter, I imagine it might raise its bushy head when the clock strikes twelve and start creeping about the house, poking around in your underwear drawer and reading the most embarrassing entries in your journal.

I've done some beautiful things with fennel roasted with wine and chicken broth in the oven but I can't recall the recipe at the moment. Ever since I learned that it's okay to eat fennel without cooking it, I've been boring and just chopped the bulbs up for salad. I bet Erin has some good ideas for fennel. While I usually don't like licorice-flavored things (pastis, certain jujubes, black Twizzlers), I think the hint of licorice in fennel is delightful without being overpowering.

Here is a nice line about Foeniculum vulgare from Wikipedia : "Fennel is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the Mouse Moth and the Anise Swallowtail." I guess it's actually an herb, not a vegetable, but it's weird anyway.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Vegetable stock

For the record, I am not a vegetarian. I may love vegetables with an obsessive urgency, but I ate rabbit loin last week at the Blue Plate and wild boar sausage the week before that at Suppenküche. I am not a vegetarian–I'm a meat snob. It's easier (and most definitely cheaper) to find beautiful veggies requiring minimal labor to produce a healthful, satisfying meal than it is to locate and buy responsibly raised meat and do the same. I love quail, but I'm not going to buy one from Wolfe Ranch, let alone stuff it with chestnuts and chorizo, lacquer it with honey, and roast it in my oven at home (à la Deuce restaurant, where I used to work). Housemade sausages from Bi-Rite are one non-labor-intensive exception, but should be used sparingly, and Marin Sun Farms produces glorious but pricey beef and chickens (sold at the Ferry Building with the feet on, to my delight). All this meaty rambling isn't meant to imply that vegetarian cooking is inherently easy–just easier for a nearly broke, eco-conscious health nut to engage in. Plus, eating meat infrequently means that I appreciate it when I do. As with butter and salt, the flavors that come from animals (including their bones and entrails) should be savored slowly.

Recently, I had leftover corncobs hanging around after making cheddar corn chowder and I tracked down a recipe for corn stock in Annie Somerville's Everyday Greens. As per my usual cooking routine, the recipe was more of a starting point than a magical list of instructions to be followed exactly, lest my potion turn to sludge. What follows is a chronicle of my first-ever attempt to make vegetable stock from scratch.

Into a pot I threw:

5 corncobs, broken in half
2 large carrots, cut into sizeable pieces
1 fennel bulb, quartered, plus stalks & fronds
1 smallish yukon gold potato (also a chowder straggler)
1 large yellow onion, quartered, with skins on
5 cloves of garlic, smashed, with skins on
1 bunch of cilantro stems
5 fronds of carrot top (subbed for parsley)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 cups of water

I covered the pot and brought the water to a boil, then removed the lid and lowered the heat until the liquid was bubbling at a very gentle simmer. I left it that way, steaming up my kitchen, for the next hour. The garlic aroma wafted outward first, followed by cilantro and onion, reminding me of my grandmother's house on Thanksgiving. Honestly, the scent alone is reason enough to try this. When the veggies looked like their life force had been extracted (see photo below), I poured the concoction into a colander over a large bowl, then poured the broth through a fine sieve (sometimes called a china cap or chinoise) into another bowl. Then I heaped the softened vegetables, in batches, into the sieve and pressed the juices out with a wooden spatula. According to Mark Bittman–who I sometimes but sometimes don't trust–this is a necessary, flavor-enhancing step (as is pre-roasting the veggies, which I'll try next time). Kat recommends reserving the mushy carrots and using them to enrich tomato sauce.

The finished product, I must admit, was a slightly unappetizing shade of green–similar to that of spirulina-tinged beverages. I blame it on the fennel fronds and carrot tops, which weren't in the original recipe. Algal appearance aside, after adding a little salt, it was delicious: clean, sweet, and fragrant. Like nothing I've ever poured from a hermetically sealed carton, but perfect for the next night's soup of soba, tofu, bok choy and rapini, which caused my carnivorous roommate to exclaim, "It smells fantastic in here!"

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pea shoot salad (dou miao)

For me, peas are meant to roll off your fork, around your plate, and off the table. They are round pellets that come in pods. I had never considered the leaves before. Then last spring, Erin made me eat some pea shoots at the SF Ferry Plaza farmers market. I was amazed at how the leaves smelled and tasted just like peas, only lighter and somehow fruitier. I've probably eaten them a million times in Asian stir-fry dishes but without recognizing them as pea-kin under all that oyster sauce.

As we head into the winter months, snow pea shoots are sprouting their delicate leafy heads and will be with us into spring. My friend Paul brought some over last night for a salad. We experimented with adding pomegranate seeds and kumquat bits. The dressing had miso, rice vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, lemon juice, kumquat zest, and perhaps some additional tasty ingredients that he threw in on a whim. It was delicious. The citrus flavor complemented the crisp pea shoots especially well. The only problem can be getting a good-sized bunch onto your fork and into your mouth. You will probably look like a giant rabbit at some point during your meal.

These shoots are known as "dou miao" in Mandarin (thanks Corey!). They are the small kind (xiao dou miao), as opposed to the larger kind (da dou miao), which is more frequently used in stir-fry dishes. Paul got a heaping box of them for $1.99 in Japantown. Here are some ideas for pea shoots in both salad and stir-fry from EatingAsia. This blog tells us that Asian pea shoots are more delicate than their sturdy English pea shoot cousins. If you want to try to grow your own, Evergreen seeds sells them.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Beet it!

In a very exciting moment of personal development, I made beets for the first time a short while ago. I had previously associated beets only with eating out -- either at a gourmet restaurant or casino salad bar. In other people's kitchens, I'd seen them dump slimy beet slices out of a can. The beauties here are from the Alemany Farmers' market.

With help from Judy Rodgers and her beautiful The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I roasted the beets to nutty perfection. (Yes, that is the sound of a horn tooting.) As with most new things I cook, I was surprised at how simple the process was.

Here's how:

Part 1: Preheat the oven to 375°. Scrub the beets, then cut off the top and bottom ends. Place them in an oven-safe baking dish with a lid and fill it with 1/4-inch of water. Cover the dish and pop it in the oven for about 25 min., until they are just tender. To test, you can stab to the center of the beet with a thin paring knife or whatever other thin, sharp, long, foodsafe object you can find. When you remove them from the oven, let them sit with the lid on for another 5 min. to finish cooking.

Part 2: When cool enough to touch, rub or peel the skins off and trim the ends again. Then slice the beets into wedges. Your fingers will look like Lady Macbeth's, but the beets are so worth it. Toss in a bowl with red wine vinegar, salt, and olive oil.

I tossed my wedges into a salad with the random assortment of produce in my fridge and herbs from my garden. This included: fennel slivers, bean sprouts, cherry tomatoes, kumquat slices, mint, thyme, basil, plus more salt, vinegar, and oil. My cat, Osiris, meowed his approval.

Cheddar corn chowder

It's the first rainy Saturday in San Francisco in a while, so although there's nothing weird about the following recipes, they're apropos today.

First is a modified Barefoot Contessa recipe for Cheddar Corn Chowder, with Yukon Gold potatoes, yellow onions, and corn fresh off the cob (I've also used Trader Joe's frozen organic sweet corn in the past, which works in winter). I make it to share with vegetarian friends, so I skip the bacon–I swear it's still delicious–use soy milk and veg stock, and ignore the fussy recommendation to blanch the kernels before adding them to the pot (they'll cook in the soup). One of the tastiest versions I've produced had diced fennel mixed in with the onions, an extra teaspoon of dried tarragon, and tarragon-flecked jack cheese instead of cheddar.

The accompanying Brown Butter Soda Bread is crumbly, buttery, and fragrant–and extremely easy to make for an experimental non-baker like myself. I use whole wheat pastry flour, less butter and more rosemary than Bon Appetit reccomends. For the loaf pictured, I actually picked fresh rosemary from a sidewalk plant on my block–does that count as usufruct? Also, FYI: yogurt thinned with milk (or soymilk) works as a substitute for buttermilk. This bread's also great with chili, which I'll write about on a future rainy day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NY special

I awoke late last Saturday morning, grumpy at the thought of trekking down to the the Ferry Building to navigatie swarms of self-professed foodies (I know, I know–I'm one of them). So I stuck close to home and met Kat at the Noe Valley FM, where I perked up after buying a few of these über-apples from Hidden Star Orchards. The sign called them the "New York Special," and they're lovely. Smaller and tangier than a Fuji, these are really crisp and juicy–perfect with the peanut butter of your choice (please, please don't tell me it's Skippy).

Update, 11/10
Purchased a few more at the Ferry Building today, and found out they're a Braeburn-Macintosh hybrid. My friend Beth tasted one and exclaimed "Wow, that's tart! Is that how you like 'em?" So I'll rephrase my previous description: they're small and crisp, juicy and tart -- almost like a green apple. But I still say don't defile them with Jif.

Update again, 12/15
The New York Specials are still being sold by Hidden Star at the NV and FB markets, and have reached softball-sized proportions. That also means they're sweeter and a tad less crunchy. Anyone want to start an apple-off?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Buford on Slow Food–before the onslaught

I just finished reading Heat, and it's my favorite among the recent-ish slew of celebrity-chef exposés/restaurant-kitchen memoirs. (For the record, the others I've digested are Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef, Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, and–arguably in a separate genre–Phoebe Damrosch's Four Star Secrets.)

Anyway, Buford's Batali homage won me over because his view of the craft of cooking–notably, outside of restaurant kitchens–is similar to mine. Having ferried countless plates of food to appreciative, discriminating, and indifferent customers, I highly respect every chef striving for perfection night after night. But that's not the kind of cooking I'm interested in doing.

"For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer's knowldge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don't have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it's true, those who do have it tend to be professionals–like chefs. But I don't want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human."

Un peu de Provence

I'm not sure how authentically French this salad really is, but I envisioned it after purchasing pristine green beans and fingerling potatoes last week. It's at least European of me to plan my dinner around whatever looks good at the market, right?

The salad is a lazy hybrid of salade Niçoise (named for une citeé en Provence) and sauce gribiche (a delicious concoction involving mayonnaise, capers, cornichons–-none of which appear here--and hard-boiled egg yolks--which do), and helped me legitmize the purchase of brie with my mom's credit card. Hey, she helped me eat it.

Look for beans that are crisp and rigid, and potatoes with smooth skin that peels back when you rub it. Wash and pat dry the potatoes and slice them into half-inch rounds or bite-sized chunks, and remove stem-ends from the beans (if they're really young and slender, this isn't necessary). Then, briefly blanch batches of each in salted (at least 1 tsp), rapidly boiling water: 1 min for the beans, about 5 for the potatoes. The beans should remain crisp and be vivid green, the potatoes should yield to a fork but not be mushy.

Once removed from boiling water and cooled to near-room temperature (plunge beans into an ice-water bath if you're afraid of overcooking), toss potatoes and beans in a large bowl with the following ingredients: sliced hardboiled eggs (or 1-2 per person), diced red onion, and enough mustard vinaigrette to coat but not overpower the veggies (in other words, to taste). I made mine with grainy Dijon, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a pinch of fresh chopped tarragon.

Serve with bread, brie, and chardonnay for a petite, frenchified dinner.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Brussels sprouts

Okay, so they're not that weird. But I think it's pretty rare to encounter someone who looooves brussels sprouts -- which I do. Other than consuming the occasional buttery green jewel at the first restaurant job I worked, I hadn't tasted a single sprout until the age of 23, due to my mother's belief that they're bitter and unpleasant. Then I saw the food network's Barefoot Contessa (or Ina Garten–does she actually go by that moniker?) prepare them in the following manner, and gave it a try. Now even my mom eats them this way -- the crunchy blackened outer leaves are her weakness, just like the burnt kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bowl.

Preheat the oven to 400 or 450. Slice the stem end off of each sprout, then, standing them on their cut ends, slice them in half vertically (see above). Discard any stray leaves that fall off, and peel away any that look dirty or holey. Throw them all on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss everything together with your hands, so spices stick to each sprout. Roast them in the oven for about 20 minutes, probably less, till they're slightly blackened and soft in the center. I feel I should admit that the batch pictured below is a tad overdone, but I like them almost burnt.